Cantonese Dim Sum
This is the blog where I impart my SME (subject matter expertise) with you on dim sum. There must be hundreds of restaurants in the GTA that serve dim sum so unfortunately I can’t rate them all. Within my article I'm introducing you to just four restaurants.
Typical dim sum at Ginger and Onion (1)
What is it?
Dim sum or as the Cantonese call it "yum cha" is a favourite amongst Cantonese Chinese families. You often will see large tables of families gathered on the weekends where three generations dine together. Some like to consider it Chinese brunch; but, it's actually served for much longer periods of time - often from 8am to 3pm at most restaurants. Accordingly, you may think of it as breakfast, brunch or lunch.
Dishes are "tapa" style and come in a wide variety of cooking methods - the most popular being steamed in bamboo baskets. They are generally individual portions of about four to a plate and are shared amongst the table. The ingredients are focused around proteins (seafood, pork, beef) so unfortunately there aren't usually that many vegetarian options. Also, don’t even think of asking about gluten free options – I don’t know if this even exists!
Each restaurant offer different variety of dishes, although they will usually all have the "staples", a sample of some of the most popular:
- Har gow - steamed shrimp dumpling
- Siu mai - steamed pork (and usually also contains shrimp and Chinese mushrooms) dumpling
- Steamed rice noodle rolls - a thin white soft rice roll that have different fillings (shrimp, bbq pork, beef, vegetables)
- Steamed buns - white bun filled with various fillings (bbq pork, chicken, egg custard, glutinous rice)
- Deep fried options - shrimp rolls, spring rolls, octopus tentacles
- Offal options - tripe, pig stomach, chicken feet
Cart or Menu?
Dim sum is served two ways:
- Employees circle the restaurant with carts holding two - five varieties of dishes and announce the options. Patrons will call out the name of the dish that they want when the employee is near them; or
- Ordering off a menu and dishes are brought to the table.
With that said, if you don't know Cantonese, I suggest you go with the menu option. The employees pushing the carts often don't understand much English and therefore you'll need to stop them to look at the dishes and they may not be able to describe the dishes more than the main ingredient (i.e. beef).
Tips and Things to Note
- Be prepared to wait - as you enter the restaurant look for a host/hostess (behind a podium) and tell them the number of people in your party. They will give a number and you just wait until your number is called. You'll notice the numbers aren't called numerically (i.e. they will skip around). It really depends on how many people you're trying to seat (a small or large table); so don't be shocked when a number that is after you is called before you - it's likely because they have a different table size than you.
- Reservations - most restaurants will take reservations but they don't work like normal reservations – a table isn’t placed on hold for you. Rather, when you arrive, the restaurant they will move you up the list and give you a table earlier. This also doesn't mean you will get the next available table, but instead one within the next three customers. Therefore, if you make a reservation for noon, don't expect to be seated at noon.
- My suggestion is to get there early - aim for shortly after 11am if you don't want to wait more than 20 minutes. If you go after 11:30 be prepared to wait about 30+ minutes to get a table.
- The optimal party size to go with is four people. Most dishes will have four pieces so going with four people makes it easier to share.
- Tea charges - almost all restaurants will charge each person a "tea charge", regardless of if you actually drink it. The prices can range from $0.50 - $1.75 per person.
- The general rule of thumb is three dishes per person. Of course, it will differ depending on the size of the dishes you order (i.e. you don't need three large dishes per person) and how hungry everyone is. But, this should give you an idea of how much you should order for "menu" restaurants.
My Recommended Restaurants
My Go-to Location
Location: Ginger & Onion Cuisine
Address: 7131 Kennedy Road, Markham (in Market Village at Pacific Mall)
Price: $2.60 for any dish on weekends
I love the variety of dishes they offer - there must be almost 100 types. Since they serve dim sum cart style they often have new "special" dishes. Additionally, unlike most dim sum places, they actually offer many vegetarian options so there's always something for everyone.
My Favourite Non-Staple Dishes:
- Stir fried spicy prawns - this is a special that they don't often have. Each dish contains about five head-on shrimp that are flash fried then stir fried with salt, spices and peppers. If you like the calamari version of dish (often served at dinner or at congee restaurants) you'll love this.
- Sago with egg custard pudding - a warm dessert that's a thick custard pudding mixed with sago (small clear tapioca balls) and a lotus paste centre.
Sago with egg custard pudding (2)
- Deep fried, large, hollow sesame glutinous balls - wonderful when they are fresh out of the kitchen! They look huge but they are actually hollow on the inside. It's a slightly sweet crispy sesame covered gluten ball that is soft and chewy on the inside.
Sesame glutinous rice balls (3)
My Special Occasion Location
Location: Casa Imperial Fine Chinese Cuisine
Address: 4125 Steeles Avenue East, Markham
Prices: (S) $3.10, (M) $4.10, (L) $5.10, (XL) $7.10
When you first enter the restaurant, a large mansion, you may feel like you're in the wrong place with its numerous rooms, large British paintings adorning the walls and huge chandeliers. But, rest assured you're in the right place and will be treated to traditional dim sum.
If you don't know Cantonese, but still want to go where the locals go, this is where you should visit. As a warning, the size of the dishes is larger than most here so my rule of them of three per person can be trimmed down to 2.5 dishes.
My Favourite Non-Staple Dishes:
- Seafood and chicken dumpling in soup - large dumplings served in a bowl of rich flavourful seafood consommé. The old version of this use to have shark fin, but since that's been banned this has now disappeared. It's served with vinegar - my suggestion is to try it without the vinegar first or skip it all together as I find the vinegar ruins the lovely seafood essence.
Seafood and chicken dumpling in soup (4)
- Deep fried dough wrapped with steamed rice noodle and topped with conpoy (dried scallop) - Get ready for a texture and flavour cacophony! Soft silky rice rolls wrapped around a crispy dough fritter, topped with crispy dried scallop. It comes with two sauces - sesame (light brown) and hoisin (dark black) and a small pot of warm sweetened soy sauce.
Deep fried dough wrapped with steamed rice noodle and conpoy (5)
- Steamed papaya and custard cake - light sponge cake layered with a thin slivers of papaya and custard. It's a great light dessert after a heavy meal.
Steamed papaya and custard cake (6)
Address: 2901 Bayview Avenue (at Bayview Village)
Prices: (S) $3.80, (M) $5.80, (L) $6.50, (XL) $8.00
The second location of the owners of Pearl at Harbourfront, it allows you to enjoy dim sum at any time of the day. Unlike other locations the do accept "normal" reservations and its normally not that busy so no crazy waiting times.
I love how they start you off with shrimp chips as soon as you sit down. While you're munching on these you can slowly decide what to order off their menu of items.
Pearl’s menu options are not as inventive as the other restaurants above – the menu is traditional staple options. But, for those trying dim sum for the first time there are still numerous options to try.
My Favourite Non-Staple Dishes:
- Stir-Fried Long Bean with Black Bean Sauce – Normally served at Shanghai restaurants it’s still wonderfully executed here – crispy green beans mixed with a rich spicy sauce.
Economical and 24/7 Location
Location: Perfect Chinese Restaurant
Address: 4386 Sheppard Avenue East, Scarborough
Prices: $1.70 for most items (main dining room) or $1.90 for most items (VIP room). They also offer "special" dishes for $2.00.
If you want to eat cheap, this is the place to go. The pricing above is based on weekdays at lunch time when they do the "cart style". If you come on the weekend it may be slightly more expensive, but shouldn't be more than $0.25 per dish.
Perfect is opened 24 hours a day. So, if you want dim sum after the bar you can come here. At night you order off the menu so the prices vary and will be higher. At this time, they only offer some of the "staple" dishes.
My Favourite Non-Staple Dishes:
- Deep fried pigeon - Essentially tastes like quail but is smaller. Served best when it’s hot out of the kitchen and has a crispy salty skin and flavourful dark meat
- Steamed banana leaf wrapped glutinous rice rolls with red bean paste - a lovely dessert that's unfortunately not offered all the time. Chewy rice rolls are filled with a thick sweet red bean paste and wrapped in pieces of banana leafs (to be discarded and not eaten)
I won't give ratings to the above restaurants but would be happy to eat at all of them. Hopefully, you'll find one that's near you that you like. I welcome any other suggestions; please feel free to leave in the comments section below.